The Great Apple Crap Shoot

You know, it’s really unfair to characterize frontier apple orchards as being all about drinking. They weren’t. They were also about gambling. Sort of.

How so? Well, these days we Americans are fairly complacent about apples. We shop at big markets and select from the few tried-and-true varieties that we use for eating, pies, baking and whatnot. But there was a period around the turn of the last century when different apple varieties where everywhere, and America as a nation was on fire to discover the new hot “eating apple”.

Where did those apples come from? Why, anywhere and everywhere. That’s what made it so interesting. For you see, apple trees are what are known in botanical circles as heterozygous, which means that, just as in humans, the genes of parents are “scrambled” (for lack of a better word) in their offspring.

That means that whenever you plant an apple seed, regardless of what kind of apple it’s from, you never know what the characteristics of the resulting tree will be, nor what it’s fruit might taste like. The seeds from an apple tree that produces medium-large, medium-sweet red apples may give rise to offspring with tiny, green, mouth-puckeringly tart apples, giant bland and mealy apples, hard sweet and tangy apples, just about anything. The only way to achieve consistency in an apple orchard is by grafting.

This wasn’t a problem for frontier families since pretty much all apples are good for juicing (sweet or tart, all the juice goes into the same barrel). So they were just as happy to have a field full of different sorts of apple trees as uniform ones. And it was just precisely that diversity that gave them a strategic advantage for developing new apple varieties, since you never knew when some scraggly misshapen runt of a tree growing on your property might pop out some truly sublime fruit.

And so, each fall, everyone — from professional botanists to dirt-poor subsistence farmers — would roam over their lands, tasting the offerings of young sapling trees, praying for the random mutation that might deliver fame and fortune. For you see big commercial growers (not unlike today’s packaged food R&D departments) were always looking for newer, ever more exciting products, and were willing to shell out big bucks for the agricultural equivalent of the double stuff Oreo. So each year the hunt was on for the new Pippin, Baldwin, Macintosh, York Imperial, Jonathan or Kentucky Red Streak. For poor rural homesteaders, it was the 19th Century equivalent of a lottery ticket.

Seen in this light, what a classic example of American “strike-it-rich” entrepreneurialism the apple orchard is. And for that matter, what a great metaphor for America, where even the most common and unpalatable immigrant crab might be transformed into a shining Golden Delicious if fortune were to smile just a little.

5 thoughts on “The Great Apple Crap Shoot”

  1. How interesting! I grew up in an apple producing area and I didn’t know that. …except maybe intuitively because when I make apple pie or applesauce I always make it from a variety of apples to take advantage of different flavors and textures.

    1. The best apple sauces are made that way…great technique!

      Thanks, Rainey!

      – Joe

  2. Heterozygosity per se is not the issue, Joe. Hybrid grains are heterozygous too, they’re just heterozygous in the same ways across individuals, being the products of inbred homozygous parents.

    this paper on the apple genome discusses a bunch of factors affecting genetic diversity during domestication. Aside from the difficulty of doing controlled breeding with perennial trees in general, it turns out that apples are self-incompatible.

    Selfing and short generation times are the breeder’s friends. Apples have neither. They do have a boatload of genes, more than humans.

    At least most are diploid (a few are triploid). I believe roses are hexaploid.

    1. I’ll sure enjoy this, Jim, thanks very much! Great information here for anyone interested in a fascinating subject.


      – Joe

  3. I grew up in Wenatchee, WA and the Cameo apple was found just up the valley in that way in grower’s orchard. Pretty cool!

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